Six months after the Tohoku earthquake, a team from Whisky Magazine Japan spent a few days in the affected zone, talking to distillers, brewers and bartenders and those running local charities and trying to rebuild shattered businesses and communities.
The whisky maker’s story
Although whisky lovers put aside any immediate thoughts of the spirit to one side as they tried to comprehend the full horror of the Tohoku Earthquake, the question at the back of many minds was what of Miyagikyo? This, it must be said, was more frequently asked internationally where a lack of understanding of Japanese geography and the former name of the distillery, Sendai, were conflated into placing the site in the midst of the devastated zone.
As WM-J discovered, however, damage was thankfully minor. We were shown a few slates which had been dislodged from the kiln, while there were reports of broken panes of glass, some very minor structural damage and the discovery, after a full check of the 25 warehouses, that a couple of casks had shifted. None of the 80 employees were hurt.
“Everyone stayed home in March for safety reasons due to the aftershocks,” says deputy general manager Minoru Miake. “We re-opened on April 1 when power was restored and restarted whisky production on April 27.” During our visit, the Coffey stills were in full operation – the distiller alternates between pots and continuous stills throughout the year.
The irradiated zone around Fukushima is too distant to have had any effect and visitors are returning – their numbers are currently at 70 per cent of last year’s. Sales, too, do not appear to have been negatively affected. “This prefecture has long been a big consumer of whisky, there’s less sake production around here, so people have always drunk whisky – while Sendai is a major city.”
More significantly, what he has noticed is how the wider community has come together. The staff themselves have worked as volunteers. “A lot of people had relatives who were made homeless or are still in centres. We all know that we have to help because we know that it is still ongoing, whereas in Tokyo you get the impression that it has been forgotten.”
The retailer and bartenders stories
A first-time visitor to Sendai would ask themselves, ‘earthquake? what earthquake?’ Contrary to the reports of a downturn in sales in bars in Tokyo and Osaka post-Tohoku, the city nearest to the zone is getting on with life. The grid of streets which comprise the main entertainment area of Kokobuncho are packed, its bars busy, its restaurants full of people.
One good indicator of how well the bar trade is doing is to call on the bottle shops which supply them. At the main Kokobuncho outlet, Liquor Nest, the staff almost apologetically confess that business is good, with sales up since the disaster and all major brands – the main seller in hostess bars; and independent bottlings – for the whisky specialists – both performing well.
“There was no power, the road had disappeared, houses were washed away”
The buoyancy of Sendai may be down to the influx of volunteers which has swelled the population, but bartenders also feel there has been a defiance on the part of the locals. The bartender at Bar Andy, explains the situation to WM-J as we sip on a Hiball made with Nikka’s Sendai-only blend, DaTe. “Immediately afterwards there was a dip because there was no power. That lasted until Golden Week and then people came back. Our sales are slightly up on last year. The regulars are back, as well as new customers.” The same message was repeated across all the bars: the power was out and no-one was walking in the street, post Golden Week the city sprang into life.
Kimura-san, who owns After Five and Buddy’s Bars agreed things were remarkably genki. “Sendai is the portal for all the recovery companies and the hub for the volunteers, so ironically things are better here than before.”
The sake-maker’s story
While the region’s sole whisky distillery was undamaged, the sake industry was badly hit, with a small number of kuras completely destroyed, others losing offices and most reporting some damage either to buildings, equipment or bottled stock. In Miyagi Prefecture alone (*), the worst affected was Suminoe in Ishimaki, a coastal town which was hit by the tsunami. Miraculously, there was no loss of life although the kura was wrecked. Fushimi Otokoyama’s brewery was unaffected, but its 100 year old offices were irreparably damaged; Miyakanbai was half demolished, though thankfully no-one was hurt; Hakurakusei collapsed, but again with no injuries; Hitakami was flooded with some damage to fermenters and stock. The Prefecture’s second-largest producer, Urakasumi, was flooded, while part of its old original brewery in Shiokama has collapsed.
The biggest firm in the area, Ichinokura, lost 18,000 (full) bottles in warehouses, had some yeast tank damage and had to dump some production as there was no power for one week. “Thankfully we had enough sake which was aging in tank, so we could get stock out quickly after the power came back on the 18th,” says president Toshio Asami, “so we only lost 11 days in total, though we had to dump about a month’s worth of production.”
Now, with harvest time approaching, the brewers have to wait with trepidation for the results of Government testing for radiation in the rice crop. Although early tests show levels are significantly under the safety limit, as Asami-san says: “We are hoping and praying.”
The craft brewer’s story
The effects of the earthquake are immediately apparent when you enter the paved courtyard of Iwatekura in the city of Ichinoseki. There’s still rubble lying in spaces between the buildings, while one of the massive doors leading into what is now the gift shop has fallen off. “Part of the house wall fell down,” recalls owner Sato-san, “the brewery tanks all collapsed and that door fell off. We had to clear it all by hand. Fortunately, because the weather was cold, the beer didn’t go off, but all the cloudy beer went clear because it was extra-matured!”
“This is the third quake I’ve experienced here. ’02 was a big one whose epicentre was 10-15km away, there was a large one in ’08, but this was the biggest"
He then had to cope with a lack of power: “the electricity was off for a week. We were the last to get power back” and transport issues: “all the roads were impassible, there was no petrol and once some normality resumed, all the delivery firms had been seconded to shipping in aid so we couldn’t get any stock out. There was nothing moving goods wise due to the damage and we had to remove it all by hand. Things were very tight financially between March and April.
“I was aiming to use our own barley this year but the dam on the field was damaged, so that is now on hold. The oyster farmer had his business destroyed, so that brew has ceased as well.” He then adds, as an aside, that his brewer has just left. Sato-san however seem remarkably sanguine.
Did he not feel like giving up? “This is the third quake I’ve experienced here. ’02 was a big one whose epicentre was 10-15km away, there was a large one in ’08, but this was the biggest. We’ve pulled through each time and got a lot of support from people across Japan holding special events and collecting money. We’ll go on. What else could we do?”
The charity worker’s story
Watanabe-san of Get Backs, Kesennuma
“I was at work when the quake hit. My kids were in a house next to the water so I went there, got them home, checked on my parents and then the wave hit.” Watanabe-san pauses briefly, rubs his brown, work-hardened hands together and continues. “Everything was down, there was no power, the road had disappeared, houses were washed away. I went home again, got my scooter and began going round the neighbourhood checking on people.” The next question is answered without any need to be asked. “We lost more than 1,000 people,” he says quietly. “500 are still missing.” There’s a silence. We all know what ‘missing’ means.
Our journey so far had revealed minor damage, tales of stubbornness and a surprising buoyancy of mood. When you arrive at the once thriving port of Kesennuma however the reality takes over. The houses and hotels overlooking its bay are virtually untouched, but at sea level there is nothing. Pools of stinking oily water, crushed cars, collapsed houses, rags of curtains fluttering in the breeze. Six months on and nothing appears to have been done. It’s like a war zone.
Watanabe-san himself has resigned from his job in construction to start up a local charity, Get Backs, which acts as a liaison point for volunteers, helps with communication and works with displaced locals. Communication is a major issue for him. “The information flow is still a problem as you get to hear the good news and not the bad news.” He looks around at the scene of devastation.
“People have just been forgotten.”
It’s a fair conclusion to draw. Almost all of the town’s shops are shuttered, its restaurants and bars deserted. People try to create a sense of normality, but six months on there’s no sign of any clearance underway, never mind any signs of rebuilding.
He takes us to one of the local schools where 300 people have been placed into temporary housing. The accommodation is neat, tidy - the flowers on the steps and kid’s toys show that people are trying to make their tiny cubicles home, but there’s no escaping the fact that this is no more than a stopgap – albeit one that will exist for a minimum of two years.
There is this sense of stasis. While there is a will locally to start rebuilding, the longer it takes the greater the likelihood that people will drift away, leading potentially to the death of the city. It’s a story which is being repeated all along the coast. It’s bad enough visiting for a weekend, imagine living with these sights, with that smell, with these memories every single day. There are numerous heroes in this story of Tohoku. Watanabe’s efforts on the part of this community makes him one of them.
Spirit of Unity bottling
Immediately the news of the scale of the Tohoku disaster emerged Euan Mitchell, managing director of Isle of Arran Distillers, contacted a number of his distilling colleagues with the idea that they should join forces and vat together a whisky from each of their distilleries. The resulting bottling, called ‘Spirit of Unity’, contained whiskies from Arran, Benriach, Bladnoch, Glendronach, Glengyle, Kilchoman and Springbank and has so far raised ¥11m.
Discussions are ongoing with Refugees International Japan to find suitable projects, one of which will be Get Backs.
*[Our thanks to John Gaunter’s Sake-World website for this information]